Although the French had been in North America since the early 16th Century, fishing and exploring the eastern seaboard, it was not until the 17th Century that the Great Lakes basin (referred to as New France) was actively explored by French missionaries, the military and fur traders. In 1634, the Jesuit donnè, Jean Nicollet passed through this area in an unsuccessful search for a western route to China, to trade for silk and spices.
In 1640-1641, two French Jesuit priests, Raymbault and Jogues, founded a mission for the Anishinabeg, on Sugar Island at the foot of the rapids Bowating. This was abandoned when the Fathers realized the Anishinabeg moved their camps and villages seasonally in search of food: fish in the spring at the rapids, collecting plants in summer, fall fishing and hunting inland in the winter. Their seasonal movement did not allow the Jesuits the intensive contact they desired to convert the native people to Christianity.
No French activity of note occurred again in the area until 1668, when the Jesuit Fathers Allouez and Marquette established La Mission de Ste. Marie du Sault (the mission of Sainte Mary at the jump or falls). Little was recorded about French settlements along the River until the 1750s. On June 14, 1671, before an assemblage of 2,000 native people gathered at the Sault, Sieur de St. Lusson, as the representative of Louis XIV, claimed for France the Great Lakes area and all land drained by the rivers of the interior. This event occurred on the shores of the St. Marys River, at the present intersection of Bingham Street and Water Street. Marquette left in 1671 to establish a mission 60 miles south at the Straits of Michilimackinac (St. Ignace). The Sault mission languished for another two decades, before its abandonment.
The center of trade in the Upper Great Lakes was at the south side of the Straits (Fort Michilimackinac founded in 1715). Nevertheless, the Ojibwa who were still in their centuries-old homeland, occasionally travelled south to the French post to trade their winter-trapped beaver pelts for blankets, beads, copper kettles and other European wares. The sporadic French influence during this time probably did little to alter the Anishinabeg lifestyle, which was in balance with the environment and the River.
To the Ojibwa, the River has always been a revered place, with its origin deeply rooted in spiritual legends, passed on through the generations. The River was also a place of offering sustenance to the native people, with their respect reciprocated through offerings of tobacco. With the arrival of the French, the River’s role was changed – to a conduit for exploration and land take-overs, economic expansion, and missionary endeavors.